Loving Fearlessly

Have you ever noticed how good it feels to love? Whether we are spending time with our favorite people, cuddling with our four-footed beloveds, or doing something we just thoroughly enjoy doing, when we are loving, we are happy. Our hearts feel warm, our faces beam, our minds are calm. For those moments, when are loving others or activities of the world or God, life is good and all is well.

Conversely, I’m sure you’ve noticed how bad it feels to be in the grip of fear. Whatever the cause, when fear is running the show, we feel vulnerable, at risk, perhaps threatened. If we are afraid of a circumstance, we will avoid it. If we are afraid of a person, we will steer clear of them. Fear can fill our thoughts with a torrent of worst-case-scenarios and make it hard for us to think of little else. Fear causes all kinds of uncomfortable physical sensations from shallow breathing to a racing heartbeat to constricted muscles and nauseous stomachs. It’s an awful feeling of chaotic, out-of-control worry that borders on panic. I hope none of you have ever felt that.

Our own bodies tell us a practical truth: Love is much better for us than fear.

If we can feel such a sense of well-being with simple, everyday moments of love, what might it feel like if we were able to love everyone all the time, to be a fountain of love, simply letting love pour from our hearts like the blessing God means for it to be? Not the conditional, only-if-you-deserve-it kind of love, but real, free, unconditional love that radiates from us simply because we live and because God is good. That kind of love—that kind of impact—is possible when we are able to leave fear behind. I think of something Ann Kendall told me once after meeting for worship at Indianapolis First Friends. She said her favorite thing to do during silent worship was to paint the entire room—the walls, the ceiling, the people, the pews—with God’s love. Such a generous, joyful, and Godlike image, blessing everything and everyone, every moment and every dream with pure, innocent, open, everlasting love.

As we read Psalm 136 together, it quickly became apparent that psalmist had a very specific point to make. I’m sure you heard it: God’s love endures forever. How often we forget that! And how little it takes to draw us away from the bigness, the abundance, the transforming and protective power of God’s love. Our confidence in God is so easily deflated. A headline here, an inconvenience there, a bit of a bad mood—mix it up together, and we’ve completely forgotten that God’s desire for us is love and care, peace and joy; God has plans to proper us and give us a hope and a future. That’s a promise. With just a little forgetfulness and some scary images in our heads about the world and the people in it, we can spiral far away from a real sense of God’s love and care and wind up in a much grayer and colder reality, feeling alone, isolated, vulnerable, and under the sway of fear.

I am convinced that not only does God not want that for us—for any of us—but God didn’t create us that way, to be ambassadors of bad news, to bring one another down and encourage fear and division, suspicion and separation. When we remember who God is and what God does—and what God has always done, as King David reminds us in Psalm 136—we know that life is about hope and connection and the presence of God’s saving, healing, renewing love across all time. Our personal lives right now are a part of that.

When we start with that idea as the bedrock of our experience—that God’s love endures forever—it can change the way we see the world and our part in it. If we really believed that God’s enduring love was ours to share—right now—and saw it as our responsibility, we might react less to horrible headlines and bad actors and spend more time painting God’s love everywhere we went.

But the reality often is that fear holds us back from living with this kind of freedom to love. We hold ourselves back, uncomfortable sharing too much. We don’t take chances with people we don’t know; we steer clear of those whose ideas and opinions are far different from our own. Part of the reason fear takes hold so easily has to do with what researchers call our negativity bias, which is a hardwired process in the brain that reacts instantly to stimulus, evaluating whether it threatens us in any way. Because of our negativity bias, we react more strongly to negative things than we do to positive ones. We’re also, unfortunately, more likely to believe bad things than good. That tendency comes from a place of good intent—our brains are trying to keep us safe and preserve our lives—but it can also pose obstacles for the way we hope to be in the world. Unchecked, it can limit the way we love and worse, it can keep us in a place of fear and distrust, day after day, and year after year. One thing we know, if we’ve ever dealt with anxiety—it rarely gets better on its own. We need loving help, support, and ultimately God to loosen fear’s grip and find, perhaps for the first time, for the first lasting time, God’s peace.

That negativity bias can also cause us to interpret even little things in their darkest light rather than just letting them roll off. That means it can be harder for us to give other people the benefit of the doubt because we take things so personally. A friend makes a comment that we take the wrong way, and later we find we’re stewing on it and we’re getting madder and madder about it. Truly we don’t know what she meant, but our brains won’t wait around for that. As we dwell on the upset it will grow into anger, and anger can lead to reactivity, judgment, accusation, maybe even attack. That’s what we’re seeing on the news and in social media these days, isn’t it? So much outrage, so much upset. Very little connection, forgiveness, understanding, civility, respect. Giving each other the benefit of the doubt may seem all but impossible just now.

The negativity bias can also cause us to lump little issues into big ones, making huge generalizations about things, or places, groups of people or belief systems. This is a huge mistake and the toxic seed of prejudice. It can cause us to dismiss or distrust others because deep down we believe we are keeping ourselves and our families safe, but God would tell us we’re missing the whole point of love when we let fear and judgment rule our minds. As William Penn said 1693, quoted in our reading for today: “Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it.”

Our New Testament reading is from the First Letter of John, which scholars say the apostle wrote during a time of conflict in the early church, encouraging people to heal their divisions by following Christ’s example of perfect love. He begins,

“Beloved, let us love one another because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

John then tells the story of God’s love, shared freely in this world through Christ, who continues to guide our understanding and help us share God’s love in our daily circumstances, whatever they may be. John writes,  “And we have come to know and believe the love that God has for us. God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him. In this way, love has been perfected among us.”

Fear, John tells us, has no part in love, but “perfect love drives out fear.” He goes on to say that fear always has something to do with punishment—which might be physical, emotional, mental; it could be abandonment, criticism, rejection. Punishment might mean we’re not good enough, we don’t belong, or worse, we’re unlovable—all truly terrible possibilities that we every one of us would naturally be afraid of…but those fears are also untrue and impossible, because we are God’s children, and God is love and God’s love endures forever.

But here’s the good news: John points out that people who fear simply are still a work in progress. It’s a normal thing. We all still have work to do in the love department. “The one who fears has not been perfected in love,” he writes. And he reminds the community that people who say they love God but hate others are dangerously deceiving themselves, for if they can’t love the people they can see, they surely can’t love God, who they’ve never seen. John ends this passage with, “Whoever loves God must love others as well.”

So how do we get from here to there? How do we let love outshine the fear that is fed by the chaotic circumstances of our time? Can we net out the reactivity in our minds, the resistance in our hearts, the suspicion and belief that makes us steer away from people who are different? God would have us love not just a few, not just the ones we think we deserve it, but all God’s children, everywhere, always and all ways.

Thank goodness we have the presence of Christ to guide us in our seeing and learning and living. If we truly want to melt the fears and prejudices in our hearts, all we need to do is ask—and keep asking—and listen—and keep listening. We will discover, step by step, where we have made judgments that divide us from others, where we could soften our views, give someone another chance, let a circumstance unfold so we can see it more truly.

If we feel humbled by the judgments and fears we find in ourselves and in our attitudes toward others, we should take heart—because that humility is evidence of Christ’s teaching. It means we’re learning and making progress. Each time we realize we are judging someone, in that very same moment, God is inviting us to choose love instead. Thank goodness we get not just a few do-overs, but constant and continual do-overs. That’s the work of God’s grace.

We can begin by noticing our thoughts more intentionally, noticing what we think about the world, where we make easy and generalized judgments about situations, or people, or nations. Where might God be asking us to soften our hearts, to consider a different view, to listen with kindness, to try to understand? If we want to see, we’ll be shown. If we want to know, the answers will come. And we can be sure that God will give us plenty of opportunities to learn and grow. Plenty. We won’t miss them. They’ll come in a way we will understand if we are willing to do the work.

And just think of the benefit—what it would feel like to know, right down to our toes, that God’s love endures forever? And that it’s all ours to share, everywhere we go, as freely and widely as we can. Imagine how open our hearts would feel, how bright our smiles would be, how far the peace would spread where love has come to repair division and heal discord. It’s possible—in fact it’s inevitable—as God’s Kingdom unfolds. God need us to do our part, choosing love over fear and living in this sometimes frightening and triggering world with hearts that are warm, open, and ready to grasp the opportunities we are given to paint our days a beautiful shade of love.

In closing, I’d like to share a sweet poem written by Nicolette Sowder:

“May we raise children
who love the unloved things--
the dandelion, the
worms and spiderlings.
Children who sense
the rose needs the thorn

and run into rainswept days
the same way they
turn toward sun…

And when they’re grown and
someone has to speak for those
who have no voice

may they draw upon that
wilder bond,
those days of tending tender things
and be the ones.”


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